Saturday, May 5, 2012


Okay, so the title sounds a bit odd but I think I need to explain exactly what is going on in my head and what this ultra thing is all about; this being as much for my benefit as yours. Having just completed 5 ultra's in less than a year - and in my first year of doing them - and at 57 years of age, I think I need to take a moment to pause and reflect.
       What am I doing and why?
     Many people use the word 'fun' when it comes to running but I'm not sure if 'fun' and 'ultra' are the perfect companions. I can think of many things that are a lot more fun than running  up and down mountains for 10 hours non stop. Obviously for many super fit endurance athletes it is fun but thats not how I see it. I find it a pressure. In my last race, my training runs were somehow easier, obviously they are not as far or as fast but mentally I felt relaxed. I've now done 5 Ultra races and completed them all (Okay, so I got lost in one but I completed the same distance as the race), so why do I have a problem. When I start a race I am terrified of the distance and the time its going to take and it eats me up until I get into the latter stages. This means that I only really start to enjoy it  when I am at my most fatigued physically. I am not a masochist, its just that mentally and emotionally I 'know' I'am going to make it and so I relax. You would think after 5 of these I'd be more confident but the enormity of the thing just takes over.
      So how do I get through the 10 hours of mental and physical stress? Quite simply I break the race down into sectors, climbs, descents, and aid stations. The last race was 4 big climbs and 4 steep descents with 4 aid stops but my main measure was splitting the race into 24 sectors. These could be climbs, flat stretches, river crossings or changes in terrain, but all were of varying length and with varying degrees of difficulty. As I finished each sector I'd mentally cross it off and move on to the next. I' d plan when to eat solid foods, prepare my poles for a climb, refuel, slow down, etc and it was this plan and thorough knowledge of the course that got me through. I hardly ever count the mileage as thats too anal for me and it lacks any emotional feeling of success or achievement at having completed a sector.
       This psychology is nothing unusual as its the same as - 'How do you eat an elephant?'...........Answer - 'One piece at a time.' All my research is through analysis because I don't know many ultra runners and as I don't speak much french I am hardly going to have an in depth conversation about Jean Paul Satre and the role of existentialism and authentic existence in ultra running!
     However, maybe thats where I am going wrong. Somehow I have to believe that not only will I finish but I'll finish well. Maybe its age or maybe physically I'm not 'built' for ultra running. Most of the guys are slim with small muscular frames and virtually no fat. I am 6'-2", large frame and 85 kilo's and yet everyone I know thinks I look too thin which is probably because I am about 11.5% body fat; but these guys are probably more like 70 kilo's and 7% body fat. I am carrying an extra 35 pounds around; and over 52 k's and with 10,000 feet of climbing, that takes a lot of energy.
        I was  grateful for the fact that I had no pains in my quads or calves and thats thanks to Helen's physio, Paddy's conditioning and me pounding up and down lots of mountains. Did my tapering and carb loading help? I don't know because its hard to evaluate but the reduced stress of tapering must have been good as well as training on the same mountainous terrain as the race; thats just common sense. I have done training runs of 36 k with no carb loading and felt fine....tired but okay.... however due to the extra carbs 2/3 days before race day I was a lot heavier and I didn't like it. But, did that help me go all the way or would I have been okay anyway? I guess the only way to find out is to do an ultra without carb loading at all but do I want to take that chance? After many hours you will always switch to fat utilisation eventually, so may be we come back to the same question; If we assume ( despite my size) that I am physically capable of doing it then how do I condition my brain to 'know' that I can do it ?...........and by default, have a more enjoyable experience.
       In my last race, half way up a long steep climb, I saw a guy just sit down and stop, I asked if he was okay and he said, yes, he was fine, but he wasn't and I could tell from the look on his face what it was......he'd given up, he knew it and I knew it and no amount of prompting from me was going to make any difference. He had made a decision, he was finished. This is why its so hard, he'd already done 85% of the course but it didn't make any difference as once he decided to stop, it was over and this feeling is ever present and you have to fight it because if this negative emotion takes hold then its game over. All the runners will have faced this impasse at some point and so I only have respect for him, he'd got this far and maybe next time he would go all the way but it made me feel grateful that I was still able to continue.
       This is the challenge, if I can conquer my fears then  surely I can go much further and /or much faster. I think the elite guys and girls can sort of switch off or get into a zone and mentally that must be the key to this whole ultra they can do this at speed and for 15, 20 or even 30 hours.
The final part of the last climb of the race
     But the next question is why? and here I get a little hazy. Personally I find it romantic which I know sounds bizarre but I do. Its a feeling of pitching yourself against the elements and testing your own abilities, getting outside your comfort zone. It can be very emotional, hence the tears at the end, its scary and you lay yourself bare. After many hours the only thing you are aware of is putting one foot in front of the other, its relentless and sometimes the only reason you continue is to overcome your own weaknesses, to look deep inside and find some more strength......and when you achieve this, the finish is almost cathartic.
      Ultra running for me and from what I read, many others, is all about testing the limits of the human spirit.........Can you do what must surely be impossible?
       I close with a quote from a recent sports study into mental toughness in ultra running:-
           'Results suggest that successful participants were stubborn / bloody-minded (tenacious), totally committed to their goals, objective, had a sense of humour, thrived on challenges, were able to maintain perspective in adversity and possessed humility.'
     About 10 months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine, Brophy, about the 60k race I had just completed and he was congratulating me on finishing, 'I knew you'd do it Phil'..........'How did you know, when even I didn't know?'..............He laughed and said, 'Easy, I've known you for 33 years, you're just bloody-minded'..............
      Maybe its that simple.........or maybe I just like running through the wilderness.

(If you click on the link below it will take you to a video on You Tube that I made of the whole 10 hour race squeezed into 10 mins....or other parts of it are in the right hand panel)



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